A strong finish to the previous campaign suggested that Bristol City would be a force to reckoned with for 2014-15, and high hopes were certainly emanating from Ashton Gate, especially as the loss of top scorer Sam Baldock was softened by the arrival of a host of quality players.
Exciting playmaker Luke Freeman, midfield general Korey Smith and defender Luke Ayling were among those who joined, as well as striking duo Kieran Agard and Aaron Wilbraham, the latter as the result of a chance meeting with manager Steve Cotterill in Dubai. For all of that the squad remained small, but ominously formidable, and they looked like virtual promotion certainties from the moment they won impressively at Sheffield United on opening day.
It took City until mid-November to lose a match, one of only five defeats in League One all season as they ran away with the title, finishing with 99 points. Their success did not just come in the league, as they also reached the fourth round of the FA Cup and won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy by beating Walsall 2-0 at Wembley, making it a more than memorable season.
Eventually left trailing in their wake were three sides who had also pulled away from the rest. Swindon’s young squad carried a great amount of flair, but some costly defeats in the final months saw them slip out of the automatic promotion picture, leaving Milton Keynes Dons and Preston North End battle it out for second place.
It looked set to be Preston thanks to a fine run from the beginning of February, and they went into the final day a point ahead. However, they lost at lowly Colchester United, and this time the Dons – who made national headlines with a 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United in the Capital One Cup in August – did not waste their opportunity to make it into the Championship for the first time since their formation in 2004.
It marked the end of seven years of knocking on the door of the second tier. Since being promoted from League Two in 2008 under Paul Ince, he and fellow big name Roberto Di Matteo have tried and failed, but Karl Robinson has achieved his target at the fifth time of asking. The difference this time was their exploits in front of goal, with Benik Afobe, Will Grigg and Carl Baker all finding the net on a regular basis alongside starlet Delle Alli, who signed off in style.
Inconsistency and an over-reliance on late goals meant that Sheffield United were never in the reckoning for a top-two finish, but they were always assured of a play-off place. However, for the second season running, they reached a major semi-final as they beat two Premier League sides on the way to the last four of the Capital One Cup, where they gave Tottenham a major scare. Local rivals Chesterfield, who acquitted themselves superbly after promotion, completed the line-up for the end of season drama.
The Speirites eventually could not handle Preston and Jermaine Beckford in particular in an occasionally bad tempered play-off semi-final as Simon Grayson’s side won 4-0 on aggregate, but the other tie brought the most excitement. Swindon led Sheffield United 2-1 from the first leg and extended their advantage to 5-1 inside 20 minutes of the return clash at the County Ground. But an incredible night saw the Blades just fall short after an amazing comeback which saw the game end 5-5 on the night, with Swindon narrowly prevailing 7-6 overall.
But the final proved a step too far for the Wiltshire club as they also had no answer to Beckford, who scored a memorable Wembley hat-trick as Preston returned to the Championship after a four-year absence. For Grayson, it represented his fourth promotion from League One, all with different clubs.
Chesterfield came through in the end to finish sixth, but the race for that final play-off place involved as many as 12 teams at one stage. Goal-friendly Rochdale were in the running until the penultimate weekend, Peterborough United endured disappointment as they paid for a poor home record, as did Doncaster Rovers. Lee Johnson could not build on a strong start to his reign as Barnsley boss by leading them into the top six as they fell away a little towards the end, as did a Fleetwood Town side that still finished a highly creditable 10th place in their first season in the third tier. Meanwhile, Gillingham, Walsall and Oldham Athletic all lacked the consistency to mount a serious challenge.
But for another incredible cup run, Bradford City might have been in with a big shout of promotion, but it was still a season the West Yorkshire club will not forget in a hurry. They caused arguably the greatest ever FA Cup sh0ck by winning at eventual Premier League champions Chelsea and then went on to dump out Sunderland, before running out of steam somewhat and losing to Reading in the quarter-finals.
The race to stay up was another highly intriguing affair which went right to the wire. Yeovil Town suffered a second successive relegation, with their fate sealed relatively early due mainly to a chronic lack of goals, a huge shame for a club that was celebrating a landmark promotion to the Championship just two years ago. Scunthorpe United and plummeting Port Vale saved themselves with a week to spare, but the three remaining relegation places were still to be decided on the final day.
The odds were stacked against Colchester, but that win over Preston proved enough for them to save themselves on a tense afternoon. Crewe Alexandra lost, but just about survived due to other results. That still represented a great achievement for the Railwaymen, who conceded buckets of goals and looked certainties to go down in the early months.
That could not have been said about Notts County, but a shocking run of form from mid-November saw them nosedive and ultimately slip into League Two after conceding three goals in the dying minutes at Gillingham. Just a year on from their play-off final defeat, Leyton Orient paid the price for their instability by losing their League One status, while Crawley Town also suffered disappointment after squandering a lead at home to Coventry City, who needed a result themselves to stay in the division. May 3 was undoubtedly a day that showcased the rich entertainment that the English third tier has to offer.
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